Farai Chideya's Uncle Don Talks Life Adventures

NPR is encouraging its listeners to participate in the National Day of Listening. Set aside one hour on Friday, November 28th, to record a conversation with someone you love. As part of the initiative, Farai Chideya speaks with one of her favorite storytelling relatives, her Uncle Don.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

You might remember that we brought you some personal interviews from StoryCorps, which sent a recording booth around the country with its Griot Project to get African-American life on tape. Now, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, StoryCorps is encouraging everyone to set aside one hour tomorrow, Friday, November 28th, to record a conversation with someone you love as part of the National Day of Listening.

They asked NPR's hosts to be a part of the project. So to bring a little joy into your life and mine, I spoke with my Uncle Don, who inspires me with his sense of humor and adventure. Donald Stokes is one of the great storytellers in my family, which says a lot. Hi, Uncle Don.

Mr. DONALD STOKES: OK. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So this - the point of all this is just to talk about whatever we want. So since you're someone who inspires me with so many different things, you know, I wanted to start out with just something very simple that you and I used to do, which is go to the track. Do you remember taking me to the track?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOKES: Yes. I spent many day at the track. I used to follow the three big races, Triple Crown, for years.

CHIDEYA: You know, taking kids to the track, it's not exactly like your typical, like, you know, play-date type situation. But since you're my godfather as well as my uncle, I guess this was just like - this was our version of the play date.

Mr. STOKES: Yeah, but all kids like horses, and you know, you've got chicken there and something to eat, and you get to watch the horses. That was, you know, a big thing for me.

CHIDEYA: I loved it. I absolutely loved it.

Mr. STOKES: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: So, do you have a system for betting?

Mr. STOKES: I have many systems, but none of them work, and all of them work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOKES: You know, that's a part of our gambling. I've seen people pick horses because they had a cute jockey or, you know, the tail of the horse was braided. And they win or lose, percentage-wise, just as much as someone, you know, who spends a night looking at the racing form.

CHIDEYA: Now, you have all these stories about what it was like to move into the city because you guys were out in Turner Station(ph). And there's a story that probably has gotten told at almost every family gathering about how you and Uncle Vance(ph), your younger brother, got into this epic fight - of course, because the ladies love cool Don - you got into this epic fight at a party, and you were outnumbered. So tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. STOKES: Greenmount Avenue(ph). We had just moved in the city. We were in junior high, and some girls invited us to a rec(ph) dance. We went there. We had a good time until we stepped outside, and the guy said, you were dancing with my partner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOKES: So, you know, I like to dance, and I danced with several young ladies. And I said, your partner? I don't even know who your partner was. That's when it started. He just hauled off and hit me. And you know me. I swung back on him, and that was it. So it was a several gangs that were in the city at that time, and us being new, moving in from the county, it was just, you know, one of those territorial challenging things and because Vance was there, he's 18 months younger than me. We hung out together.

That's why we talked about it at family gatherings because we scrapped among each other because of closeness of age and being boys. But when it came to somebody bothering one of us, the other one had its back. So later on we learned that the guy I hit had his jaw wired, so it won us a lot of respect. We were going to Clifton Junior High School then, and one of the girls that had invited us, her father was an undertaker. He had a small place to march his funeral.

CHIDEYA: Very well respected.

Mr. STOKES: Very well respected, yeah. They had a little rural house at that time on North Avenue. But we fought that day, and we were wearing little barracuda coats, that little trench coat that were something at that time. Like, I remember just being surrounded by guys, and you know, this is the way you want to be. My back was against the door. They pulled Vance out by his coat, and I just remember, you know, yelling to him, don't go down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he was down on one knee, and they were pounding on his head pretty bad. So people from inside, the organizers, grownups came out and stopped it, took us back inside. And we had a black Cadillac come and pick us up, and we had to walk through the crowd to get in the car, and we were taken home. So we got home.

CHIDEYA: That's not a bad way to roll out of there.

Mr. STOKES: No. We rolled out pretty good with some - with some bruises and bumps. But of course, we went home, and we went right in, went right upstairs. And Mom do something (unintelligible). So, older brother Renzy(ph) talked to us, and he wanted to know, do you want me to go back there, you know, like an older brother did. I said, no, I think we did OK. We have little headache and little aches and pains. And we found out when we went to school that week that we didn't have to join any gangs but we had a bunch of respect.

CHIDEYA: That's a tough way to jump in. But you know, it reminds me a little bit about the stories that you've told being jumped in on the ship, Coast and Geodetic Survey. First, for people who don't know what it is, explain what the Coast and Geodetic Survey is.

Mr. STOKES: It's the mapmakers, people that go out and survey the ocean, so it's basically oceanography. And myself, going to a technical school, Pauley(ph), I was recruited right out of there because I had survey in school. The program was to lead to a commission officer in the Coast and Geodetic Survey. And of course, they said you would travel. So you know me, I wanted to travel.

CHIDEYA: And where were a couple of the places you went?

Mr. STOKES: We normally surveyed the coastline up and down the West Coast. The second year, we went to a joint ocean adventure, the Indian Ocean expedition. And there I went to the Philippines, Jakarta, Malaysia, Singapore, India, West Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, Penang, Midway, all of the ports between California and India and back.

CHIDEYA: You also learned to do karate while you were on that ship, right?

Mr. STOKES: I hung out with a bunch of guys from the Islands, Hawaiian guys, and that's where I first heard of Ed Parker. And I started talking to him and the philosophy and how they had to take care of themselves, and we would punch the metal sidings around the quarter deck to toughen up our hands. And of course, they showed me a few things. Why I got started, I was with a bunch of Hawaiian guys, and we were on Waikiki, and there was a little Chinese guy that didn't sail with us, but a couple of - I guess mainlanders were bothering him. And he tried to walk away several times, and they caught up with him. And then it was like, in a flash, and it was over with. All these guys were like on the ground, and I said, what was that? And that was, of course, some kung fu. And Ed Parker teaches kung fu on the streetside.

CHIDEYA: And Ed Parker went on to become one of the best-known names in martial arts.

Mr. STOKES: Right. He was known as the father of American karate, and in fact, he housed Bruce Lee when he first came over here. Bruce Lee stayed with Mr. Parker, and I got to see Bruce Lee in California at a demo. But he had a young guy there, a Chinese guy, who was going to show us a one-inch punch, which Bruce Lee later on became famous for. A guy from the audience came up, and Bruce put his fist about an inch from his chest, and then he told him - put a chair behind him because he was going to be sitting down. And he punched this guy from an extended arm, just generated the kind of force that set this guy in the chair and it slid across the floor. So we had some really good times and really impressive. And to talk to any of these people, you know, they were very interesting people to talk about. They really studied the mechanics of the art.

CHIDEYA: Well, I'm going to have to leave it there. There are so many things that I find interesting about you, and that means that the next time I get to see you guys over the holidays I expect more stories.

Mr. STOKES: Well, I'll always have a few.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: You have more than a few, and these are just the ones that we can put on the radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOKES: I'm working on something right now.

CHIDEYA: OK. Uncle Don, lots of love. You take care.

Mr. STOKES: You, too. Bye now.

CHIDEYA: Bye. That was my uncle Donald Stokes talking about some of his adventures around the world. He also went on to serve as a U.S. Marine. He spoke to me from the studios of WEAA in Baltimore, Maryland. And you're getting to hear this as part of the StoryCorps National Day of Listening.

If you're interested in recording someone important to you, StoryCorps has all the resources you need to get started. Just go to nationaldayoflistening.org where you'll find a downloadable do-it-yourself guide, great questions and an instructional video.

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